Responding to a humanitarian crisis while under lockdown

On 6 May 2020, Save the Children and Equal Experts co-hosted a remote-working workshop at the Global Digital Development Forum, an annual get-together focused on digital technology in social and economic development.

For the first time the forum was completely online, compacting a three-day conference into a single day. The 20 continuous hours, follow-the-sun event kicked off with the Asia Pacific, and finally closed with the Americas Pacific sessions.

Equal Experts has been working with Save the Children in Rwanda and Burundi since the end of March, helping them be a high-performing team while remote-working and in the most challenging of circumstances. We’ve had the privilege of witnessing their extraordinary work to deliver critical healthcare and child protection services, in refugee camps and other settings, and as they respond to devastating floods and landslides. 

Rwanda flag

On the 22nd March, Rwanda became the first sub-Saharan African country to go into full lockdown.  At the same time devastating floods created humanitarian crises in the region. Many international workers were forced to fly home and many NGOs went into hibernation, leaving many vulnerable people to fend for themselves.

Working from home is hard for everyone and the in-country team at Save the Children had never worked remotely before. On top of that, Save the Children needs to respond with urgency to the unfolding events happening on the ground.


Save the Children team

I realised my colleagues at Equal Experts could help by sharing their remote-working experience and know-how.  

Equal Experts has many, many collective years of experience of remote-working with high performing teams across hundreds of companies. We’ve been sharing that with  the Save the Children team, to help them regain their effectiveness while under strict lockdown. We have learned a great deal from them, too, as much as they have from us. 

Phoebe (Operations Director at Save) shared a story about connectivity and access to WiFi. 

“In the total lockdown in our country, they were not ready to work from home—we were not prepared. Not everyone has internet connectivity or WiFi in our homes. So we used our phones using our internet bundles. One of my colleagues had to get access to the internet, by hanging his phone in a tree. At the office you have an IT person who is supporting you, but at home we do it ourselves.” 

Save the Children invested in upgrading home IT, but challenges remain. The quality of internet connections is a common complaint.   

Phoebe said “We relied on emails, which was not effective and productive in the new environment and situation. We would have to wait for someone to send an email when asking for information, and we wait for a long time to get the feedback from a colleague.” 

It was not easy to access information. To get visibility of what colleagues were doing was not easy. So, it’s important for us to be creative and empathetic and keep the tools simple, acknowledging that not everyone has a good office set-up at home, and not everybody has flexibility. 

We now have short calls a few times per week, reducing reliance on emails. The team has a shared understanding, and everybody has equal access to information. We’ve reduced the amount of time that people have to spend waiting for feedback, or writing reports and emailing—now you get immediate updates on a call. 

To begin with, not everybody attended calls regularly.  Making sure that everyone attends a short and regular team meeting, means we can work effectively and reduce time wasted due to  miscommunication. People have many calls booked into their calendars and prioritising between them is a challenge that we continue to work on resolving. 

We’ve reduced the amount of overall time on video calls to let people work in their own time. Remote team work is not just about video calls, it’s about a mix of collaboration tools that work under low bandwidth or patchy connectivity. Video platforms can fail gracefully to low resolution video, but often simple audio is all that works. That’s fine if we are flexible and go with what works for everyone. 

A continuous process of learning is really important – to make sure we continue to adapt. Phoebe’s team is drawing up a Team Charter, so the team can stay on top of working together well. 

We accept that stuff happens – WiFi gets patchy, or we speak while we are muted, which creates that awkward silence. Sometimes home life collides with work life. Everybody’s digital literacy is in a different place. We each try our best to be empathetic and help each other in an inclusive way, so that we can be a remote-by-default team where each person is on the same page. 

The team is also thinking about how to be more social by dedicating some time to bringing that “lunchtime canteen experience” into the online world. So all that important chit-chat and some important work stuff get discussed, in a socially engaging way. 

We are making a big shift, from being remote-friendly to remote-by-default. Remote-friendly says, “Let me continue doing my job as before, but now try to figure out how it fits into this remote world.”  Remote-by-default means you completely redesign how you and your team work–designed around remote working, right from the start. There are lessons to be learned from designing for accessibility needs, and being inclusive by designing the experience around those at the edges – around the most excluded.  

The Rwanda team – Francois, Marie Claire, Patrick, Paulin and Phoebe – have made incredible progress and are an effective, productive and impactful remote team. Even though lockdown restrictions have eased a little and some team members could be in the office, they have chosen to continue working in remote-by-default mode.  

Remote-by-default enables teams to be resilient in the pandemic.  It is also an opportunity to have an impact on a larger scale, and to make use of globally distributed expertise.  All organisations are becoming much more carbon conscious and will travel less post-lockdown. So getting used to this way of working is an essential skill, despite IT and other challenges. Organisations will hugely benefit from adapting the way they work to make remote-by-default teamwork part of their playbook. 


You can find the session details on the GDDF website. During the session we share some best practices from the Equal Experts remote-working-playbook

We share some stories of how Equal Experts and Save the Children have worked together to increase everyone’s visibility of team activity, improve flexibility, and gain more control despite the challenges that everybody’s facing.